student creates facemasks
Volunteers work to create face masks for healthcare workers.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) and the Department of Theatre and Dance are working together to create masks needed by frontline healthcare workers combatting COVID-19.

This is in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that fabric masks are a crisis response option when other personal protective equipment has been exhausted. The masks will be pleated for better fit and made of 100 percent densely woven “breathable” cotton with pockets that can be inserted with a disposable near N95 non-woven filter material. After use, the cloth masks may be treated with regular laundry soap, laundered and reused.

face mask displayed
Cloth face masks

Angel Yanagihara, associate research professor at JABSOM and the Pacific Biosciences Research Center, is working with faculty, students and staff of the Department of Theatre and Dance to sew the homemade fabric masks. The effort is contributed by the head of the costume shop, Assistant Professor Maile Speetjens and Facilities and Production Manager Rick Greaver, with the support of Department Chair Markus Wessendorf.

“As soon as it was apparent that there was a need for masks to be sewn, it seemed obvious that students and staff at the Department of Theatre and Dance had a skillset that could be put to good use,” Speetjens said. “Sewing skills are consistently taught in this department, thus giving us the opportunity to pitch in and put our hands and sewing machines that are normally used for costume making to good use in the community.”

“The best part about this effort is seeing everyone come together with a desire to help,” Greaver said. “There are a lot of logistics and hurdles to getting this off the ground, but I think seeing the excitement of students, faculty, and staff whose eyes lit up as we talked about getting this going is a reward in and of itself.”

The first batch of cloth masks will be distributed through the University Health Partners of Hawaiʻi, the faculty practice plan of the UH medical school, with priority given to providers and staff in primary care and emergency care specialties, who provide first contact care for the majority of patients. In addition, JABSOM medical students are assembling plastic face shields that are needed by frontline healthcare workers.

With public contributions for materials, it is hoped that these masks and shields can be extended for the support of other primary care providers across the state of Hawaiʻi. Greaver also said that they are having difficulty obtaining 1/4 inch wide elastic, due to shortages across the country.

How to help

Monetary contributions can be made through UH Foundation, and those wanting to donate elastic material can email or A mask making tutorial is also provided. It was created by Speetjens and her Graduate Assistant Isabella Dixon, and Specialist Thanh Truc Nguyen of the Curriculum Research & Development Group in the College of Education.

student wearing face shield
Volunteers are assembling plastic face shields and masks for frontline healthcare workers.